Keith Mabbut, the protagonist of Michael Palin’s second novel, The Truth, represents, in this age of climate change and rampant capitalism, an updated version of the failed academic: the failed environmentalist. Like Michael Beard from Ian McEwan’s Solar and Walter Bergland from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Mabbut is middle-aged and full of compromise. He, too, has relationship problems, and his career has failed to measure up to early potential.
One of the advantages, it seems, of the failed-environmentalist protagonist is the way an author gets to confront the character with something much larger than themselves, which both makes them feel small in comparison and forces them to accept their own limitations. In The Truth, Mabbut’s foil is manifold: the destruction and ransacking of nutrient-rich geographies of India, a business of publishing, and a seemingly perfect figure whose life it is Mabbut’s job to chronicle. Once a promising, award-winning environmental journalist, Mabbut now earns money by writing puff books for oil companies, like Triumph in Adversity: The Official History of the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal. He and his wife have separated, his daughter Jay has taken up with an Iranian refugee, and his son, who lives with the mother, takes a guarded approach to his father. Sickened with his hackwork, Mabbut decides to finally get serious about his planned trilogy of novels, only to get interrupted by an offer he can’t refuse: the biography of Hamish Melville, a famously reclusive environmental activist. Though suspicious of the publisher’s intentions (the outfit, after all, is ominously called Urgent Books), Mabbut sets off to India to find the renowned crusader.
Palin, he of Monty Python fame, is much more proper and earnest than one might expect him to be. Like Steve Martin, another comedian turned novelist, Palin doesn’t bring his celebrated silliness and absurdity to the page. Instead, he moves his narrative along straight-facedly, though at a brisk and entertaining pace. So economical is the storytelling, in fact, that sometimes the briskness comes at the expense of believability. Once in India, Mabbut finds this “enigmatic maverick” with a “unique ability to stay out of the headlines” with little effort. Later, on a tip consisting of nothing more than “a name and a country,” he locates another important figure to the story. These contrivances work to make the book speed along, but they reduce tension somewhat and often remind the reader of Palin’s authorial hand.
The novel holds some surprises though. Mabbut’s journey in India could have easily become a trite white-man-learns-life-lessons-from-natives arc, and it does step into that territory a bit (“There’s a constancy to people here. It reminds me of what I saw in India. Among the tribes there. Constancy is something very precious.”), but doesn’t let Mabbut off that simply. Moved by his travels in India, Mabbut feels particularly generous to Shiraj, his daughter’s passionately political boyfriend. When Shiraj’s family, still in Iran, are unjustly jailed and he needs money to get them out, Mabbut happily picks up the bill. Shiraj, it turns out, is a scam artist taking advantage of Mabbut’s empathy and trust, which stemmed from his “life lessons” in India. Yes, there are tribes in need of advocacy, but there are also liars and thieves in disguise. The world is all.
Palin’s depiction of Hamish Melville, the impossibly ethical activist against which Mabbut compares himself, is handled unexpectedly. Ron Latham, of Urgent Books, wants Mabbut to find dirt on Melville, since scandal sells better than veneration. Mabbut, though, distrusts Latham, believing him to be nothing more than a scheming businessman. Mabbut sees Melville as a hero, as the passionate advocate Mabbut never became. When Melville reveals the truth to Mabbut, which isn’t the dirt Latham had insisted on but something much more shocking, we see that Latham was more correct about Melville than Mabbut. Had Melville remained enigmatic, or “legendary” or “heroic,” or, conversely, if he’d ended up being a narcissistic monster only out for himself, Mabbut’s moral plight wouldn’t have been worth anything. He would have been standing up for a man who’s easy to stand up for. In Palin’s telling, it isn’t Mabbut who ends up inspired by Melville, but the other way around. It isn’t Mabbut’s grand heroism that impresses Melville, for Mabbut has none, but his honesty and integrity. Modest men can move mountains.
It’s in these moral and narrative complexities that The Truth elevates itself above trifling distraction. Though at times fun and funny, and though it ultimately leads to a neatly tied-up conclusion, it proves that Palin is a genuine novelist, with an acute sense of pace and structure and a knack for flouting expectations. Tropes abound, yes, but Palin’s comfort with the material (whether via research or experience or both) mostly grounds the book in a credible-enough reality, especially when he takes his time and gives Mabbut some inner life. When the novel moves along too quickly, Mabbut the character gets lost in the speed, but then Palin offers passages like this:
He heard voices below the window; the slow, subdued chatter of families rising before dawn to prepare for the day ahead. Since leaving London he had kept his mind firmly on the job in hand, deliberately trying to keep at bay other, less welcome, trains of thought. But the voices below, and the intimate sounds of the a family waking, brought his own fractured family to the forefront of his mind. Mabbut thought of his daughter, head over heels in love with someone he hardly knew, and Sam, receding into the distance. Most of all, he thought of Krystyna.
A novel must allow time for a reader to settle into a character, to allow them to sink into a setting, a place, a mind. Hectic plots can inadvertently produce simplistic characters. Palin’s Mabbut is brought to life in such renderings, and through Mabbut the story gains humanity.
Fiction loves an impossible battle, which probably explains the recent proliferation of failed environmentalists in novels. The Earth is dying, so what grander battle is there? Mabbut and Beard and Bergland may never win the fight against a declining planet, but their stories, at least, have some use, and that’s probably the most anyone can hope for.
Michael Palin’s The Truth is available now from Thomas Dunne Books; to purchase it, click here.